Early deficit, lack of offense dooms Michigan in Wisconsin

By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 10, 2014

MADISON — Maybe it was the larger ice surface? Maybe it was the Wisconsin defense? Maybe it was a lack of energy? Or maybe it was a lack of a physical presence in front of the net?

Whatever it was, the No. 9 Michigan hockey team had no way to remedy it, falling 5-2 to 14th-ranked Badgers at the Kohl Center on Friday night. The Wolverines will complete the series tomorrow, looking to avoid a four-game losing streak in the process.

“It’s a dose of reality for our team,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “This is what it’s going to be like. Tonight was a learning experience.”

Michigan had gone more than 125 minutes without a goal before sophomore forward Andrew Copp knocked in a rebound for the first Wolverine tally late in the third period. Senior forward Luke Moffatt added the other Michigan goal later that same frame to skew what was otherwise a slow, forgettable offensive performance.

The scoreless streak dated back to the third period of the Wolverines’ 3-2 overtime loss to Western Michigan in the first game of the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit. Junior forward Travis Lynch was the last to score with 14:36 remaining in that game.

“I can’t tell you we’re not gifted offensively, but we haven’t got to that level where you can just about count on certain players getting good scoring chances every night,” Berenson said. “We’re not getting enough grade-A scoring chances, period.”

Michigan has now played on a non-traditional ice surface for the last three games, including outdoors at Comerica Park, home to the Detroit Tigers, and at the Kohl Center, where the ice is seven feet wider.

Wisconsin looked much more comfortable on the ice when Michael Mersch skated down the left side with the extra room the larger ice surface provided him and flicked a wrister at the net. The shot sailed in front of the crease for what was otherwise an easy glove save for netminder Zach Nagelvoort, but the puck took an awkward deflection off the glove and bounced into the net.

Nagelvoort, who ranks in the top five nationally in goals against, bailed out his defense — unimproved from the Great Lakes Invitational — as he’s done on so many occasions. The freshman stopped 26 shots, including a trio in the third period to keep the game within two goals in the late stages of the final period.

But even as the Wolverines took only one penalty in the first period, the Badgers’ penalty kill and defense were stout in holding the Wolverines to just nine total shots. Wisconsin blocked seven shots in the first frame alone and what wasn’t blocked was swallowed up by netminder Joel Rumpel — also a top-10 goaltender.

“It's nothing they were doing,” Copp said. “It's all on us. We're good enough to provide an offense down close to the net.”

Where Michigan lacked a presence in front of the opposing net, or a physical one at that, the Badgers were there with multiple bodies wreaking havoc. Later in the first period, with a scrum in front of the net, Wisconsin’s Grant Besse was there to fire one that squeaked by Nagelvoort.

“I think having a net-front presence is really important, especially with a good goaltender like that,” Copp said. “I think there were definitely times where we could have gotten in front of the net and we didn't. Especially on the power play in the first two periods.”

And in the second period, when Michigan needed a spark, or something to capitalize on, it failed. Sometimes the Wolverines looked slow, other times they looked disorganized, and the comeback never came until it was too late.

“We’ve got to have a better start,” Berenson said. “You can’t … give that team the confidence of playing with a lead.”

Facing an offensive barrage in the third period, Michigan still struggled to find an offensive rhythm. Wisconsin buried a rebound off Nagelvoort for what turned out to be the game-winning goal, making the most of its net-front presence.

Copp’s goal brought the deficit back to two, and Luke Moffatt made the game interesting with a power-play goal with two minutes left, but an empty netter from Wisconsin and a breakaway attempt seconds later ended any threat.

Maybe it was a lack of confidence? Maybe it was something more?

And whatever it was that prevented the comeback and allowed the end collapse, it showed. As the Michigan players skated off the ice, they looked down, their helmets rarely raised to acknowledge anyone or anything.